Documentary director Erin Lee Carr has built a career on exposing the double standards women face in the world, whether that’s the conservatorship that trapped Britney Spears (“Britney vs. Spears”) or that of Michelle Carter (“I Love You, Now Die”). Her latest looks at the glittery world of the Bling Ring, a group of teens who, between 2008 and 2009, robbed a series of celebrity homes.
“The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring” seeks to look beyond the Hollywood names, and the accompanying 2013 feature directed by Sofia Coppola, and interview the presumed ringleader behind the robberies, Rachel Lee. Lee’s life and culpability in the robberies was fueled heavily by sexism and racism. As Carr said to TheWrap, “We live in a climate where women face both sides and the sword.” If women stay silent, as Lee did during the Bling Ring events, they’re persecuted just as easily as if they opened up right away.
“If they come forward, then they’re looking for attention or [if] they don’t come forward then their stories are inconsistent because they didn’t come forward,” Carr said. Carr sought out to explore the “cultural knee-jerk reaction” that came from people hearing that Lee would be telling her story. “I was never going to make a film that was going to let Rachel off the hook, but she does understand and really own up to what she did,” Carr said. Lee was sentenced to four years in prison for her crimes and served almost a year and a half before being released on parole.
“There’s been all these rumors [about Lee],” Carr said. “One of the more painful one is there was a Wikipedia piece where it talked about Rachel had below-normal intelligence. Anybody who talks to Rachel [knows] that’s not true and that lived on a Wikipedia page for a very long time.” In fact, it remains on the Wikipedia page today.
Carr went on to discuss revisiting the 200os and looking back at her Britney Spears documentary now that Spears is out of her conservatorship.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TheWrap: Would you say “The Ringleader” is a spiritual cousin to your previous docs like “Britney vs. Spears?”
Erin Lee Carr: All my films are spiritual cousins, in one way or another. I’ve only made one film about a man and that was “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop.” The rest of them have been about complex women and very proudly so. Britney Spears obviously falls into that in her iconic status as one of the greatest singers and performers of all time. And then there’s Rachel, who was a part of this criminal conspiracy. It was this very much talked about crazy crime that was adapted by Sofia Coppola, but she [Lee] never gave an interview. That’s always something that will excite and interest me, ‘Are there new things to say on a topic that there is a built-in audience for?’ And there absolutely was.
Was it a challenge getting Rachel to talk to you?
None of this stuff comes easy. Oh, my dear God, was it a challenge! I got in contact with her through someone who’s related to the Bling Ring that set me up with a phone number and I set about making a connection with her. People have been trying to get after her for years, leaving letters, writing emails, messaging on Instagram, and she was like, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ It took a lot of thoughtful and careful conversations about what it would be in order to get her to feel comfortable.
Originally, she wanted to do a podcast, because she is able to lead a rather successful life in her normal life now. Does she want to go back to all of that? And I said, ‘I understand, but I’m a documentary filmmaker and there’s a lot here. I want people to know you and see your face. Maybe there’s a way for you to clear your own name, at least in the court of public opinion.”
Do you look at the feature film differently knowing the changes that were made with regards to the real people’s race?
I’m definitely a fan of Sofia Coppola’s film. A lot of people didn’t like it because they felt certain actors portrayals were deadpan or too spot on, but that’s what that character is like. In telling this story, the fact that Rachel is a Korean American woman, with parents [who] are from Korea, and there was an expectation of her to be a quote unquote, good girl, and she went against that, that is a big part of this. There was this feeling of feeling othered, by Rachel, in this primarily white enclave in California, and she wanted what these white celebrities had. I’m always careful to have her speak to that, and speak to it in her own words, as a white woman, allowing the space for that, but not adding my own conjecture. But it was a pretty important part of the story.
Your Britney Spears doc is often cited as one of the reasons Spears was able to terminate her conservatorship. How do you look at the impact of your stories?
Britney Spears is the reason that Britney Spears is free by her speaking up at that court appearance. It was so clear that she did not want to be in that unlawful conservatorship and the documentaries, mine being the Netflix one, added to the global conversation about Britney Spears was a part of it. But I would never want to take credit for it. As a documentary filmmaker, you dream of the day where something that you thought about in your sweet little brain could make actual ripple effects. I tend to work on criminal cases where I do feel like I am a part of the narrative, but one of the things that I do is I act as the defense attorney and act as the prosecutor. I let the jury decide and for the most part — you can catch a couple of times I break this rule in my films — I try to let people decide what they think about it.
“The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring” airs Oct. 1 on HBO and Max